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Korea Revisited: World Heritage in Korea ① Gyeongju and Haeinsa Temple

Korea is home to some of the most distinct heritage sites, tracing five millennia of history. From the ancient stone monument of Dolmen going back to the Neolithic age to Jeju Island’s geological sites, an increasing number of Korea’s cultural and natural heritage sites have been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The registered heritage sites spread all over the Korean Peninsula each reflect the unique value that embodies the nation’s cultural traditions, history, religion, and natural environment.

Gyeongju, the museum without walls

Gyeongju, a coastal city situated in North Gyeongsang Province, flourished as the ancient capital -- then known as Seorabeol -- of the Kingdom of Silla (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) for almost a millennium. Often referred as "the museum without walls," the city of Gyeongju embraces an extensive repository of historical and cultural treasures across its urban space, in addition to its natural scenic beauty.

Bulguksa Temple (left) and Seokguram Grotto (right) were registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1995 (Provenance: Cultural Heritage Administration; photos courtesy of the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation).

The city holds some of Korea’s first UNESCO designated heritage sites, including Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, both added in 1995. They represent a combination of Silla's traditions of architecture, geometry, religion, and art in an organic whole and are some of the highest regarded masterpieces of East Asian Buddhist art.

In November 2000, the popular tourism destination was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, covering its historic area in recognition of its remarkable concentration of historical properties and cultural heritage sites alongside its significance in the development of Buddhist art and architecture.

The Gyeongju Historic Areas are divided into five major belts, which all together house a total of 52 designated cultural assets bearing the testimony of the historical and cultural achievements of the Silla Dynasty. In the Mount Namsan Belt, visitors may go mountain-climbing and breathe in the crisp air while appreciating Buddhist sites and pagodas scattered all over the area.

Wolseong Belt is filled with some of the most awe-inspiring cultural heritage highlights that the ancient capital has to offer including the former site of the Royal Palace site of the Silla Dynasty (Provenance: Korea Tourism Organization; photo courtesy of the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation).

At the former site of the Silla royal palace site in the Wolseong Belt lay some of the most famed tourist attractions that the city has to offer, including Anapji Pond and Cheomseongdae Observatory. The Tumuli Park Belt features a cluster of royal tombs and relics of archaeological importance. The World Heritage List also includes Hwangnyongsa, where more Buddhist art can be found and Sanseong Fortress.

The Korean government has spared no efforts in conservation of the cultural heritage of the old capital, while preserving the balance between the surrounding residential areas. The city of Gyeongju as a whole is enshrined under the country’s Special Act on the Preservation of Ancient Cities, a legislative act established in 2001 in an effort to ensure preservation of historic cities.

1,000 years of wisdom preserved inside Haeinsa Temple

Korea’s long and distinguished woodblock printing tradition, which was initially developed to disseminate the words of Buddha, accelerated the cultural prosperity of the Goryeo era. Although many of the historic documents and scriptures disappeared during war times, a number of documents of high importance, such as the Goryeo Daejanggyeong -- known as the Tripitaka Koreana to modern scholars –- can still be found here.

The Tripitaka Koreana stored in the Janggyeong Panjeon Halls of Haeinsa Temple ( in South Gyeongsang Province contains 81,258 carved wooden printing blocks, from where it gets its byname “Palman Daejanggyeong (meaning "80,000 Tripitaka"). The Goryeo Dynasty’s Buddhist canon, which is allegedly the oldest and most comprehensive version existing in the world, was created to oppose the Mongolian invasion through religious belief.

(left) Inside Janggyeong Panjeon Halls; (right) Haeinsa Temple (Provenance: Cultural Heritage Administration; photos courtesy of the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation)

Haeinsa Temple, where one can find the extensive collection of the Tripitaka Koreana, is considered one of the three “Jewel Temples” in Korea along with Songgwangsa Temple and Tongdosa Temple. The distinct scientific importance of the Tripitaka was entered into the UNESCO World Memory of the World Register. Its depository, Janggyeong Panjeon Halls and Haeinsa Temple, were also designated as World Heritage Sites -- in the early stages of Korea’s World Heritage history in 1995 -- making it the only venue to carry two such designations in a single place.

Haeinsa Temple is currently hosting the 2011 Millennial Anniversary of the Tripitaka Koreana, under the theme of “encountering the living wisdom of a thousand years.” A series of cultural events commemorating the millennial anniversary of the world’s oldest intact Buddhist canon enticed over one million spectators to the grounds in the Gaya Mountain National Park in a single month. The festival will wrap up its 45 days of celebration on November 6.

The 2011 World Heritage Forum is set to take place in Haeinsa Tourist Hotel from November 3 to 4. The forum, which aims to look back at the past four decades after the 1972 World Heritage Convention, is organized by ICOMOS Korea (, under the auspices of the Cultural Heritage Administration and local governmental organizations.

Throughout the two-day forum the participants will discuss sustainable preservation and responsible development of the World Heritage Sites. An international panel featured at the forum will include honorary Australia ICOMOS member Duncan Marshall, among other field experts and local academics.

By Hwang Dana Staff Writer

The “Korea Revisited: World Heritage in Korea” series is designed in cooperation with the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation to shed new light on the UNESCO Treasures in Korea and highlight the foundation’s 2011 World Heritage Visiting Program.


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